Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy, left, and Braun and Associates attorney on behalf of the Dahlstrom family Cassie Gresham, right, at last week’s Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County is close to finalizing an agreement prohibiting development on 2,275 acres of aquifer recharge land on Dahlstrom Ranch property near Buda, though county residents won’t soon unwrap 350 acres of the land proposed for public access.
Hays County commissioners voted unanimously last week to authorize County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy to execute – by Dec. 31 – closing documents for three conservation Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easements covering the 2,275 by Dec. 31.
A steering committee is formulating recommendations regarding the public access features planned for the ranch’s 350-acre Howe Pasture, which the Dahlstrom family has agreed to lease to the county. Hiking and picnicking will likely be among the activities allowed in the Howe Pasture.
Kennedy said the public access steering committee may have recommendations ready by February or March 2010. Kennedy said he will then negotiate with the law firm representing the Dahlstrom family, Braun and Associates, and perhaps execute a lease agreement by April.
“The conservation value (of the easement collection) is appraised at more than $22 million,” Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said. “And, yet, Hays County is getting it for $5 million – $4.9 million dollars. So we are reserving vast areas of land, critically important water quality features, and we’re doing that for really a fraction of the cost, because we have found regional partners who are stepping up to match our $5 million, and because the Dahlstroms themselves are willing to donate more than $12 million in value. And that is considering the value in terms of conservation easements already discounted. If you look at the value of this land on the open market for development purposes, it would be worth $40-50 million or more, and in that sense, Hays County is really paying pennies on the dollar because of the cooperation and partnership that we have struck. That’s a partnership that should pay dividends for years to come. And I think we’ve laid the foundations for other good works together with the family in the future.”
Commissioners have actually agreed to spend about $5.35 million in parks and open space bond funds on the Dahlstrom Ranch easements and related transactional costs. The county will share ownership of the easements with the City of Austin and the Hill County Conservancy (HCC).
Austin is contributing $1 million and HCC, by way of a grant from the National Resource Conservation Service, is contributing $4 million. Hays County commissioners agreed to contribute $4.9 million for the easements and about $350,000 in capital improvements for the Howe Pasture. More recently, commissioners agreed to pay $100,000 to help HCC with survey work and site cleanup, among other transactional costs. HCC will be the managing grantee for the easements.
“HCC has incurred a significant amount of attorneys fees because … their attorney has been doing the lion’s share of the drafting and document preparation, so we’ve offered to reimburse HCC for some of those costs,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the stakeholder committee is proposing that the county solicit donations from those wishing to access the Howe Pasture.
The locations of all the caves at Dahlstrom Ranch are not yet available to the public.
“We’ll put cave gates on the ones we consider to be readily accessible,” Kennedy said Tuesday.
Kennedy said there may be some “limited spelunking tours” on the property for safety reasons rather than to make a profit.
Tense moments preceded the court’s vote on the Dahlstrom Ranch issue last week, when two commissioners and Sumter expressed a desire to learn more about what had been negotiated regarding public access, and to get a guarantee that such access would be granted before authorizing execution of the lease agreements.
“I’m just really kind of interested in the details of the public access,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos).
Braun and Associates attorney Cassie Gresham asked in response that court members think of the Howe Pasture lease and the conservation easements as two separate issues.
“It’s hard because I think the public access is very important, and I think if we’re going to take action today, we’re paying this money up front without having those assurances,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos)
Barton then suggested that the court move into executive session to discuss the issue, as the discussion involved sensitive ongoing negotiations with the Dahlstroms and the other parties.
“I’m happy to hear your concerns,” Gresham said. “I would really appreciate it if you guys would talk amongst yourselves about this, because I’m getting very nervous about the things that are being said out here.”
The court then went into executive session, and after 50 minutes, Sumter and the commissioners emerged from her office. Barton left the courtroom to conference with Gresham while the rest of the court moved on to other items.
After Barton and Gresham returned, the court voted to authorize execution of the easements and to amend the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for lease of the Howe Pasture. The MOU originally stipulated that should the parties not come to some agreement regarding public access by January 2011, the MOU would expire.
“What we said today, what we changed, was that the MOU has a fuse on it for January 2011, but should we hit the end of that fuse, instead of expiring, the terms of that MOU will get rolled into a lease,” Kennedy said. “… We want the family bound to do a public access portion on this property, we want to have them obligated.”
After the court meeting, Conley said the Dahlstrom Ranch easements still would be worth what the county has agreed to pay, even if the public were not allowed to access the ranch.
“Like Jeff said, this is the largest contribution in Hays County’s history on anything, much less conservation,” Conley said. “…The public having access to a piece of this ranch gives them access to a piece of our heritage, a piece of our history, gives them an opportunity for environmental education and gives them some low-impact educational opportunities as well.”
Kennedy said even more of Dahlstrom Ranch may be accessible to the public in future years, depending on the family’s wishes. The MOU stipulates that the terms of the Howe Pasture lease can be renegotiated every year. Kennedy said it may be three to four years before the full 350 acres of Howe Pasture are open to the public.
“I don’t anticipate that we would expand to 350 in the first two to three years,” Kennedy said. “I think it would take us that long to see how things are going.”
Said Conley, “The Dahlstroms have been a wonderful partner and true to their word and I have no reason to not believe in their desire for public access.”Email | Print
$5.35 million of parks money for a non-park. Maybe the county can set up a website with some pictures of this land so that all those who paid for it can admire its beauty from their own homes. The money is almost gone now and we still need some park land.
Open space is a good use of our money. Man doesn’t really have to trample all over God’s good earth. Let it go.
This is exciting! I know that this must have been hard to negotiate with the many partners and I congratulate the commissioners court and Mark Kennedy for really taking on this opportunity with such great effort. I hope that I get to do some spelunking.
Buying land w/taxpayers’ money and then denying them access is a hard sell but a necessary one. At the rate Hays County is growing all land is vulnerable to “get rich quick” development. We know that rules, regulations, and growth plans don’t stop approval of these sloppy developments on sensitive properties. So this appears to be a smart, long term investment in protecting the health of our aquifer. In the big scheme of things, this 2770 acres represents a very,very small amount of public land that public access will be limited. Well, until someone decides to build a 4 lane road through it….
Did we pay the Dahlstrom family to not develop the property, but not gain any true access to it? Will they be able to continue their ranching activities undisturbed yet receive millions of dollars to do so? That should not have been hard to negotiate. Mark Kennedy, you can pay me to not do a variety of things –some of which I wasn’t going to do in the first place. I feel like I am in some Ayn Rand novel; someone who knows more please explain it to me.
“Did we pay the Dahlstrom family to not develop the property, but not gain any true access to it? Will they be able to continue their ranching activities undisturbed yet receive millions of dollars to do so?”
Well, I’m thinking “Yes.” That’s why it is a ‘conservation’ deal. The main objective of this deal was NOT to give you a hiking trail, but to preserve aquifer recharge land for the future. The 350 acre public park was basically to appease you.
I’m sure glad we have the Hill Country Conservancy working hard to create Vast Open Spaces for current and future generations to enjoy.
You got me Carolyn; I am way too backward and unenlightened to understand this sort of ‘conservation.’
This ‘conservation’ is a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. Not only do the poor directly pay a proportional share of the money that goes to the landed gentry (to do nothing), but they also pay more for housing because supply is removed from the market. All in the name of a hypothetical threat to water quality –after all, who doesn’t like water. It helps when Carolyn heaps it on by imagining a “get rich quick development” observing no restrictions. Imaginary dangers are the worst kind, because they can be so dire and imminent since they don’t have to exist in a world of land restrictions and processes. I cannot imagine a more dangerous threat to Hays County than a family of four with two cars and a dog — we have to spend all we can to make sure such cancers don’t move here. After all, we are already here, there is no need for anyone else.
If the restrictions aren’t sufficient to protect the water quality, make them tougher, but do it with science rather than fiction.
I have around 30 acres over the recharge zone that I would be happy to “sell” the county a conservation easement on so that it can not be developed!
“If the restrictions aren’t sufficient to protect the water quality, make them tougher, but do it with science rather than fiction.”
The “fiction” is in THIS statement, for WHEN our water quality drops, because we have paved and developed the recharge zone, it will be WAY PAST too late.
The only “solution” THEN will be to run that “family of four with two cars and a dog” out of their home(s), along with their next door neighbors on all sides, and their neighbors as well, and then bulldoze and jackhammer those neighborhoods and developments, and set them back to a natural state.
Or in other words, “Once it’s built, IT’S BUILT!”
The Edwards Aquifer is an almost unique feature on this planet, whereby this very large volume of pure, fresh drinkable water, simply gushes forth from the ground.
To let a shortsighted group of “un-unique” minds jeopardize and destroy such a marvelous gift such as this, with their self-serving motivation, and at the expense of all others and their/our future generations, will not stand.
It has progressed to a pathetic state, when deep-rooted greed and hungry mediocrity grows and seeks to displace the former standards of good common-sense and desire for long-term human viability.
Everybody loves water — not just B. Franklin. It is also the favorite weapon of those who oppose development. This purchase is for around 1/4 of one percent of the land over a recharge zone that covers portions of 7 counties. If the goal is to protect the most recharge acreage for a given amount of money, there are far less expensive options in some of the Southern counties. Why is this land so singularly important to the future of clean water? It is not enough to say “water” ten times to stifle debate; scare tactics don’t inform. What are the chances of development on the parcel and what specific, quantifiable risks does managed development pose to the water supply? Greed goes all directions, and it is hard to defend a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich by claiming those opposed are “greedy” and “un-unique.”
Pardon me if I am skeptical. I remember the City of San Marcos signing on to an expensive conference center and useless land purchase, because the very future of the San Marcos river was at stake — or was something else at play…
Mr. McGlothlin- Why do you consider yourself backwards and unenlightened? You seem like an educated person to me.
I am concerned that you seem to think that I consider people a ‘cancer’. On the contrary I do accept the fact that Hays County is one of the fastest growing counties in Texas. I welcome these people with open arms. It’ a beautiful place to live, land and houses are cheap and plentiful (Don’t worry family of four w/car and dog-No imminent danger! There will be a house for you-just maybe not on the Dalhstrom Ranch.) , AND we have the foresight to preserve land that will allow this high quality of life to continue.
See what happens when the government knows better than you do? We’ll all be running around here in little brown suits before it’s all over. This entire ordeal is an oblivious waste of public funds and gives us unique insight into the world of fraud, waste, and abuse. Any idea as to what’s behind all of this?
Wow. Can you imagine the amount of dollars the Spelunker Industry will bring into the county?
I am sure one out of every thirty million families in America enjoy spelunking on about one possible occasion in their lives.
I guess now Spelunkers from all over Amercia will flood Hays County businesses with all kind of revenue from this popular sport for the “limited spelunking tours” this deal will offer as part of its “public” park access. Some deal, huh? And we didn’t even get a smoke afterwards.
The statement ” 1/4 of one percent of the land over a recharge zone that covers portions of 7 counties” is not factually correct. The Edwards has different compartments and depending on rainfall/ recharge conditions the underground waters can have different flow pathways. The recharge zone for the Barton Springs segment of the aquifer is limited to Hays and Travis counties. Recharge features are not spread evenly around in the zone. Due to local geology they are concentrated in some areas and almost absent in others. Carefully picked, small amounts of preserve land can protect a large percentage of the recharge.The next time you go out on a glass bottomed boat and look at the San Marcos springs think about the fact that water from at least 3 or 4 different pathways all converge there to rise and give birth to the River.
Andy, you do not seem to illustrate the statement is not factually correct; instead you propose that not every acre of recharge land is equal. Okay, maybe so. What of the property upon which the County has purchased an easement? Why is it better than other available recharge acreage?